SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Second Rate American Product?

Say it can't be possible!

But it can.

Before I go any further, I want to distinguish between the U.S. National Soccer Team and Major League Soccer. The former, ranked #6 in the world by FIFA, international soccer's governing body, is primed to make serious strides at the 2006 World Cup and is a great team. The latter, a fledgling professional soccer league, is a distant, poor cousin to the top leagues in England (where Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are perenially at the top), Italy (AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan) and Spain (Real Madrid, Barcelona). If you need any evidence, look to the 5-0 shellacking a team of MLS all-stars took at the hands of a somewhat uninspired Real Madrid team (which is populated by, among others, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham, to name a few) last week. Eric McErlain of Off-Wing Opinion did a nice job of breaking down the game and issues with U.S. professional soccer (whose season doesn't overlap the top international leagues' seasons entirely, thereby ultimately making it tougher to compete with those leagues for the best players). Put simply, losing in soccer 5-0 is akin to losing 15-0 in baseball or 42-0 in football. While it is true that the MLS team had little rest and hadn't played together before, the game still demonstrates the distance between the best league in the U.S. and the best leagues in Europe.

For whatever reason (and I really cannot explain it), I have become more interested in international soccer. Perhaps it's because the U.S. team is at its all-time best (further to the point on the distinction between the MLS All-Stars and the U.S. National Team, many U.S. national team members are playing in Europe, while many MLS All-Stars are not U.S. national team members). While I don't have Tivo (Eric reports that he does and tapes games constantly), I did just subscribe to a nifty little package from Comcast (at $5 per month) that gives me the Fox Soccer Channel, Gol TV and the Fox regional channels, which should give me broader coverage of college football and basketball in the U.S. Thus far, I've watched some good English Premiership games on Fox, including an interesting matchup between Bolton and West Ham yesterday (where I learned that when a shot hits the post, it can make a clanging noise that sounds like a traffic accident, so forceful are the shots of some of these players).

If you're interested in following the World Cup at all next year, I'd recommend getting this package from your cable network and tuning in every now and then. If you watch the top leagues, you'll get a sense of who the top players are from around the world. The rosters of Bolton and West Ham, two teams that are mid-level Premiership teams (for the uninitiated, the Premiership is the top English soccer league) are populated with international players, some of whom will start for their country's teams in the World Cup.

I do watch the MLS on occasion, and I find it to be an interesting product to watch, but it lacks the excitement that soccer-crazed Europe brings to everyday matchups. Soccer does take some getting used to, because most Americans over 35 didn't play it growing up, and because it's still a laggard in the U.S. sporting culture. We're not inundated with it every day the way you would be if you lived in London, where pages and pages of the newspapers are dedicated to lengthly articles of all soccer matches, from the Premiership all the way down to the lowest-ranked leagues. The game moves more quickly than baseball, but it's a game of ebbs and flows and bursts of energy. Get caught napping, and you'll miss a nifty two thirds of the field pass that springs a forward to get a good shot at the goalie. There isn't much scoring, but that doesn't make the action any less compelling. After all, there's a lot of excitement when you're in the 80th minute and the score is deadlocked. Lots can happen.

Soccer's a much more physical game that people in the U.S. can imagine. Read this link about yesterday's game between last year's champion, Chelsea, and Tottenham, and you'll think that you're reading about a game between the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs -- from the 1970's! Before you analogize soccer to ballroom dancing, think again. These guys bang into each other pretty hard, and they're not wearing any padding. Yes, of course, it's not American football, where the injured lists seemingly swell every year despite advances in training and technology. But considering that the players don't wear helmets or pads, and you might think again about how tough players have to be to play this game.

The U.S. sporting climate is terrific, and there are many games to watch and, more importantly, many things to do for the average American sports fan. And while the choices in America are second to none and the opportunities are vast, professional soccer in the U.S. has a way to go. That said, some outstanding owners and investors are involved in the product, and that fact alone should give the U.S. soccer fan base hope for a constantly improving MLS.

I'm not sure that the MLS will be able to lure stars from all over the world who are in their prime (why play in Chicago if you're Brazilian when you can play in Barcelona or Madrid and be treated like an international rock star?). In Madrid, London, Paris, Rome, Manchester, Torino and elsewhere, soccer is king. The bigger challenge for the MLS is to tap into the ever-growing talent pool of American players (who only thirty years ago were more likely to play Little League baseball than kids' soccer) and keep them home. Landon Donovan returned to the MLS from Germany, but many outstanding players are playing overseas (where the buzz and, yes, the money, are superior to what's offered in the U.S. today). That ultimately will be the test of the MLS.

In the meantime, check out the MLS on ESPN and pick up that package from your cable operator if it's available. You won't be disappointed.

That is, if you get the chance to pull yourself away from your favorite baseball team (especially if they're involved in the playoff hunt), your favorite NFL team (as the season begins) and your favorite college football team.

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